Working with old iron nails

I have been given some old iron nails from a cathedral in Vancouver.
They recently did a renovation and someone thought that the original
hand forged nails could be made into something interesting to sell
as a fundraiser. I’ve searched the archives but haven’t found
anything very helpful on how to work with this material. I’m
wondering how much I can manipulate the metal - can it be annealed
and bent? - can it be soldered or should I be planning on cold
connection? and finally, how do I keep it from rusting? Thanks very

Joanna Francis

Hi Joanna,

Here is a link to someone who makes horshoe nail rings. it’s on this page near the
bottom. He also has an amazing amount of on

Also this is an online blacksmithing book and will tell you how to
anneal steel and make nails.

Hope these help.
Brian Barrett

Finally, a subject I know something about! Iron must be forged–in
other words worked hot at a red orange to yellow heat. At that
point, it is easy to hammer, twist or bend, and can be shaped into
virtually anything, but it will re-harden as it cools. ABANA, which
is the association for artist-blacksmiths has a website
and a good publication called The Anvil’s Ring. It has numerous
articles and pictures of the wonderful art made with iron and steel.
You can also look up your local chapter of ABANA and find a group
close to you. I’m sure you will be able to find someone willing to
help, and perhaps let you use a forge and get some tips. For small
items like nails, you could bring them up to forging heat with an
oxyacetylene torch. Find a friend who welds and they will have the
proper size torch tips to get enough heat. The small sizes jewelers
usually use will probably not be sufficient. A propane torch might
work, but I’m not sure. I have a propane forge, but it has multiple
burners and may have a different oxygen/fuel mix than a torch. Have
fun! One of the really great things about blacksmithing is that the
material is cheap so you can experiment endlessly.

Linda Holmes-Rubin
ForCapital Associates of Atlanta
Phone: 770-479-7837
Fax: 770-720-7555
Fax: 770-720-7555

Sculpt Nouveau provides a wide variety of patina options…even for
ferric metals. Take a look at their website at:

The usual disclaimers apply.


Yahoo ! Something I actually have some experience with. Yes indeed,
you can make beautiful things with old nails. Here are a few tips:

1.) Avoid using galvanized nails. They are dipped in a coating of
melted zinc to provide a certain degree of rust-proofing. Get this
coating hot, as you must do to really work with steel, and breathe
the fumes and you can get very sick. Stick to non-galvanized nails.

2.) Regular nails are generally made out of mild steel. This type of
steel has a very low carbon content, which makes heat treating them
difficult. Low carbon steels like this do work very well for small

3.) Try using what are called “Cut nails” if you intend to do any
kind of heat treating like hardening or tempering. They are actually
cut out by stamping them from sheet and look like horse-shoe nails
instead of something made from wire. I am currently making some
chasing and repousse’ tools from these nails and, so far at least,
they are working nicely.

Nails can be a lot of fun. I have used a simple propane torch to
heat the smaller variety nails to working temps but the larger
nails don’t seem to really get hot enough. I do use my oxy/acetylene
torch with a size 000 tip with great success and have made
sculptures using only nails. Using cut nails I have made miniature
swords and knives that are hardened, and tempered. They are real,
live tiny little knives that sharpen and cut nicely. Lots of fun can
be had with nails. Enjoy yourself playing with them.

Another person here mentioned Ron Reil is an
accomplished blacksmith and, on his page, he has all the information
you need to build a very practical and small forge with a homemade
burner you can build yourself or buy from him. These are very
effective forges that run on propane and will definitely do anything
you might need a small forge to do. Follow the link that Brian
Barrett gave you to Reil’s homepage. You can find an amazing amount
of about blacksmithing there. Blacksmithing is a very
gratifying sport and very fun to do. I encourage anyone to go as deep
as they want into it. Making art with hot steel is a lot of fun!


I'm wondering how much I can manipulate the metal - can it be
annealed and bent? - can it be soldered or should I be planning on
cold connection? and finally, how do I keep it from rusting? 

Hello Joanna,

I’ve done a fair amount of work with horse nails (new, not reclaimed)
and have found them nice to work with if you realize that you’re
working with iron and not a copper based alloy.

to anneal: heat to a dull red and bury in warm sand or the like.
Leave buried until they’re cold. The point is that you want them to
cool as slowly as possible.

to work: iron is best worked while red hot which is a dream because
it is like warm plasic at that temp, very easy to shape, twist, etc
(very satisfying work!). Annealing is a fair second option though
you’ll find it will work harden quite quickly compared to sterling
and gold alloys.

soldering: I’ve never been very pleased with my efforts to silver
solder iron nails. It can be done, much depends on having a good flux
I’m told, but I’ve always found brazing (using a high temp torch like
oxy-acetylene) to be cleaner and, to my eyes, look better. Obviously
much personal bias there.

cold connection: personally, this is what I’ve found I prefer if for
no other reason than there’s a certain syncronicity between nails and
rivets, or whatever, in terms of design aesthetics.

rust prevention: there are commercial treatments you can buy but
they’re often pretty serious chemicals so I’ve always preferred and
used the old fashioned “blueing” technique.

blueing: clean and wire brush the finished piece so that you’ve
removed all scale, flux glass, etc, coat the piece in motor oil (a
light coat of used motor oil seems to work best, just a couple drops
smeared all over the piece with your fingers), gently bath the piece
in heat 'til the oil smokes (protect yourself from breathing that
smoke by the way and don’t heat it so much that the oil actually burns
away), quench in salt water. For some reason I’ve never been able to
find a reference to this but quenching the blue in a mild brine seems
to build a better finish than quenching in plain water. Repeat this
process two or three times and you’ve got a nicely blued piece that
will stand up to normal wear and tear remarkably well. I’ve made
men’s buckles out of horse nails and finished them this way: years
later they’re still an attractive deep steely blue, the finish is
still in very good condition and no rust. Note that this type of
blueing is not satisfactory for pieces that will be worn next to the
skin since normal body moisture and salts will attack and destroy it
fairly quickly.

I hope some of this is useful to you.

Trevor F.